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Prague

Prague has survived many crises, but the floods of August 2002 threatened to ruin centuries of culture and history forever. Happily, the waters were no match for the robust landmarks and iron will of the people of this ancient kingdom, and the city is back, better than ever.

Here, the last 1,000 years of triumphs in art and architecture have collided, often violently, with power politics and religious conflicts. While Bohemia has been the fulcrum of wars over the centuries, it has settled into a post-Cold War peace, spiked with a rough transition to a capitalist economy.

While Prague's rich collection of Gothic, baroque, and Renaissance buildings has stood stoically through all the strife, the streets and squares fronting the grand halls have often been the stages for tragedy. The well-worn cobblestones have felt the hooves of kings' horses, the jackboots of Hitler's armies, the heaving wheels of Soviet tanks, and the shuffling feet of students in passive revolt. Today they're jammed with armies of visitors jostling for space to experience the aura of "Golden Prague" only to be bombarded with peddlers trying to make a quick buck or mark (or crown when the home currency is stable).

The spaghetti-strand alleys winding through Old Town have become so inundated with visitors during high season that they now resemble an intricate network of trails for scurrying ants. This town wasn't built for mass tourism.

The lifting of the iron curtain after 1989's bloodless "Velvet Revolution," one of a flurry of citizens' revolts ending Communist rule in Eastern Europe, has attracted many Westerners, who can finally come search for the secrets of the other side. But the city sees itself as the westernmost of former East Bloc capitals, and Praguers wince when they hear the term "Eastern Europe" used to describe their home.

Conflicts past and present give the city an eclectic energy. The atmosphere continually reminds us that monarchs and dictators have tried to possess this city for much of the past millennium.

The City of a Thousand Spires

Viewed from high atop Vysehrad, the 10-centuries-old citadel at the city's south end, the ancient city of Prague hugs the hills rising from the river Vltava (Moldau, as it is commonly known from the German). Rows of steeples stacked on onion domes pierce the sky, earning Prague the moniker "The City of a Thousand Spires" -- an inaccurate title. I've counted many more.

Sadly, in the 4 decades of vacuous Communist rule, the city's classical heart was infected by faceless architecture and neglect. Now, while new owners clean up the grime on decaying masterpieces and rebuild facades on many forgettable follies, the city is recapturing its more avant-garde tastes. Regrettably, a new army of self-commissioned "artists" has laid siege with another weapon: graffiti. The sprejer (sprayer) problem is the latest chapter in Prague's cyclical battle of moderating freedom against repression -- a conundrum Czech expatriate author Milan Kundera recounted in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The Czech Republic was branded an economic miracle in the early years of the transformation to a free-market economy, but an experiment in rapid privatization of Communist-era companies led to a massive wave of corruption, turning the dream into a nightmare for many.

Thanks in part to tourism, Prague has been spared the worst impact of a deep recession in the late 1990s, although you should be forewarned that the Czech currency, the crown, remains very volatile, and its value fluctuation can significantly affect the price of your stay.

But while Prague's rebirth has come with labor pains of inflation, traffic jams (with new Western cars), and the ever-present pounding of construction crews, the stately spires of this living baroque and medieval museum rise above it all. Despite the furious development and reconstruction popping up all over, the classical monuments remain the city's bedrock. Prague Castle's reflection in the Vltava or the mellow nighttime glow of the lanterns around the 18th-century Stavovské Divadlo (Estates' Theater) gives the city a Mozart-really-was-here feel.

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